In conversation with CharityBids co-founder Israel Shachter. The company behind the most exclusive curated experiences and events, increasing donations and impact for non-profits.
You’ve built a company which offers the most outrageous trips and celebrity experiences to philanthropists as a way of raising millions of dollars for charity. What work experiences do you believe have helped you successfully create CharityBids?
This may come as a surprise to you, but I came into this business by accident. I never had any intention of being in this business, and the experiences that helped me get to where I am were most likely those I had as a young child.
I grew up in a very modest home with parents who led by example. They taught me that one does not need money in order to be generous. I learned invaluable life lessons by watching my parents consistently give to others. Empathy and responsibility to the community were among many other lessons. I doubt I’d ever be so passionate about this kind of work without my upbringing.
What first inspired you to co-found CharityBids?
I was involved in various volunteer opportunities as a kid, which led to producing events as a way of helping build awareness and support for several charities. Some of the fundraising initiatives that I established in my teens are still successful annual events today. As the years went on, I built a few charities from the ground up.
In 2008, my co-founders and I were volunteering for a golf tournament in support of a Toronto school for children with special needs. We came across a number of companies offering technologies and consignment products to charities for their auctions, and weren’t impressed with what we saw. I truly didn’t feel they understood the needs of the charities or donors, and many of the “priceless” experiences were anything but priceless.
Donors are often motivated to give more when there’s something unique and memorable for them to buy in auction; something they may not otherwise be able to get on their own. They want to feel that their generosity is appreciated, and they expect good service. There was a lot of nuance and sophistication lacking in the no-risk consignment industry. After many years on the “other side” of charity events, we decided to just do it ourselves, and do it well.
I established a reputation in the world of fundraising and philanthropy over my years as a volunteer fundraiser, and I had built an extensive rolodex as a volunteer charity event producer. When we made the decision to begin designing unique and priceless experiences for charity auctions, there was no shortage of people for me to turn to who would help me bust through every door to make the world more accessible.
CharityBids was originally intended to be an NPO so we could support hundreds of organizations with minimal effort while keeping our day jobs. Thanks to a major Toronto philanthropist, we ended up establishing CharityBids as a business. He knew that we were building something so vital to charities, that it would require our full attention to become successful. By establishing it as a business, we gave charities their deserved recognition. Over 10,000 charity auctions later, I think he was right.
Can you tell us a bit about some of the challenges you have faced starting and running a charity organization — especially during COVID?
Donor fatigue – when people no longer donate to charities when they otherwise would have – is a byproduct of the Pandemic. Now, it’s more difficult for people to take action in response to a crisis or charity call-to-action. If charities wish to remain relevant, they have no choice but to be active and creative in their engagement and communication. Like any challenges in life, it takes the right attitude and perspective to appreciate this.
As for challenges I’ve faced, nothing really stands out in particular. Starting and building an NPO is no different than starting and building a business. I feel strongly that one should never start anything, or get behind anything, unless they totally believe in what they’re doing. At the end of the day, if you’re passionate about the cause and surround yourself with the right people and the right energy, you won’t have any real challenges as you build your dream. You will have rough patches; I’ve had my fair share, but I love what I do, and I welcome all “challenges” as growth opportunities.
What does CharityBids offer in their trips that other consignment companies do not offer?
We pride ourselves on the end-to-end experience and customer service that come along with our consignment packages. We have the ability to design experiences that other suppliers simply do not have the access, reach or creativity to offer.
We have a deep understanding and appreciation for the needs and wants of our charity clients and their donors. As a result, we are more focused on creating special memories for philanthropists than we are on selling trips. We’ve always been a charity-first, business-second operation. We under-promise and over-deliver. If winning bidders feel they’ve scored, then the charity they supported has scored, and CharityBids has definitely scored! In our business, everyone wins!
We supported over 2,000 charity events in 2019, and the number continues to grow year after year by word of mouth and referrals. We only recently started marketing and advertising efforts with our charity events, because we know those who are struggling to pivot need the extra support. But those who know the CharityBids experience also know there’s no competition.
How does CharityBids attract celebrities to various fundraising events, and to what extent do you believe their fame attracts newcomers looking to give back?
I am in the people business. I love people, care about people, and build meaningful relationships with people. Celebrities are people. We attract them by being genuine and authentic and by focusing on who they are as individuals and human beings. I would never ask a celebrity to do anything I don’t believe in myself, or anything that I don’t believe is in line with the greater good. That’s a mutual understanding.
I must also qualify that we are living in a time where celebrities have tremendous power and influence. To that end, while CharityBids sees them as “normal people,” it is undeniable that their fame helps attract more awareness and raise more funds for important issues and causes. As such, we use our relationships to attract celebrities to events, to back causes we believe in, and to build unique opportunities together. But none of what we do would be possible without the many years that we invested in building meaningful relationships and trust with everyone around us.
How has CharityBids changed its practices to adapt to the reality of the world pandemic especially when traveling for leisure was/is still restricted, and most everything went online?
Either we make change, or change makes us. When COVID-19 hit, we changed absolutely everything. Overnight. CharityBids supports live charity auction events and galas, all of which were canceled. We sell exclusive experiences, most of which involve travel and/or other live in-person events, none of which were taking place. By the end of March 2020, over 400 scheduled charity events had already been canceled, and continued to grow. This is in addition to the hundreds of previously booked trips for donors that had to be rescheduled or refunded. Everyone can identify.
In the beginning of the Pandemic, CharityBids pivoted quickly by coming up with two important charity initiatives as a response to the crisis. The first was the sponsorship of a “Toy Truck” to Chai Lifeline Canada, a national children’s charity whose mission is to bring smiles to children and families affected by illness. Throughout the lockdowns, our whimsical and musical truck made its way through the GTA delivering thousands of free toys, games and crafts to children in isolation.
The second was a virtual experience auction that we coordinated in partnership with GVNG and CharityBuzz.com for the purchase of PPE (personal protective equipment) for the hospitals and frontline workers who did not have enough PPE at the time. We reached out to celebrity friends of ours to ask for a 15-minute Zoom session donation. With the help of friends like David Blaine, Kristin Chenoweth, George Lopez, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Jeremy Piven, Val Kilmer, Pia Toscano, Caroline Campbell, David Foster, Katherine McPhee, Naomi Campbell and dozens more, we were successful in raising close to $300,000 in a matter of weeks!
I began to receive calls from charities, corporations and private clients out of the blue who asked me to write and produce virtual events for them. Since the first official CharityBids event in May 2020, we have produced over 100 virtual events. We have written and produced custom content, sketches, songs, musicals, game shows, telethons and everything in between, with, and for, the most recognizable artists, comedians, hosts, actors and celebrity personalities in the world.
We are blessed to have found incredible opportunities during this time, and we’ve been working very hard to help our clients identify opportunities for themselves as well. For the first few months, charities had the luxury of standing on the sidelines, praying for COVID to pass, and playing the pity card. If they haven’t been able to pivot successfully yet, they should reach out to CharityBids. We have the proven success in adapting our practices, embracing the change, and helping others find success during these times. I don’t know anyone else in our space who raised over $30M for charity during COVID. I’m mighty proud of how my team adapted and grew during the pandemic.
What are some tips you have for other companies that host events and have had to shift to virtual platforms?
First, what works for a live event does not always work for a virtual event. Times have changed and so have all of the rules. The food, drinks, energy, camaraderie, attention span, and so much else changes when people are on the other side of a computer screen. Your audience needs interaction, engagement, entertainment (in short doses), and they must feel captivated by whatever it is that you’re showing them if you wish for them to stay logged in.
Second, and this one is specifically for charities and corporations: When considering a budget for your virtual event, spend at least what you would have spent on a live event. You have the opportunity to attract more guests virtually than you would have been able to attract to your live event. Ever better, the digital content that you create for your virtual event is an asset that you can use well beyond your event. The content you create for your virtual event should be creatively scripted and produced so that your audience knows it was made for them, and in a way that allows you to use the clips for promotion after your event.
Take advantage of celebrities and entertainers who are otherwise out of reach and out of budget for your event. They’re at home and bored too. They don’t have to travel or carve out a few days to attend your in-person event, so their appearance fees will be significantly cheaper as a result.
Be different. You’d be surprised at what you can get away with and how much fun your event can be in a virtual setting. We’re living in unprecedented times; do unprecedented things. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope. Don’t have people perform in their usual element. Don’t have Usher sing. That’s too obvious. Have him teach everyone a dance. Let him call out people by name and engage with them live. Create an experience they would have never expected and send them off with something to rave about. Don’t have the Chairman or the Executive Director give a long-winded, boring speech. Nobody is interested in that. Have them work their message into a song, a game or a challenge.
Last, and certainly not least, make sure that your production is tight and invest in a platform and/or team who know how to support the technical and production elements. A good team will work on a contingency plan in the event that there is a technical glitch or if the run of the show doesn’t go as planned.
What are CharityBids’ goals for the next 5-10 years? How are you hoping it will grow as times change?
If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we plan and God laughs. My goal is to continue to create unique opportunities for charities to be able to engage their donors, expand their reach, and thrive, regardless of what might be happening around them.
We’re all coming to terms with virtual events. We’re all anxious for the day life will go back to “normal,” but here’s the thing: Virtual and hybrid events are here to stay. It will be acceptable for a live event to have a virtual host and/or virtual guests. It will become the norm for every event to be streamed so that people who cannot attend in person can view it online. CharityBids is well ahead of the curve, and we’re opening peoples’ eyes, on a daily basis, to how much is possible in a virtual world. I expect to see continued growth in the coming 5-10 years, I expect to see us producing a lot of original content for events, and I would love nothing more than to stick to doing what we love doing and to what we do best.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs who are either starting their own businesses or considering their next career moves?
Always remember that a good name is worth more than anything else. I hope the Pandemic has taught us that a thriving business can be crushed at any time, for any reason. If and when that happens, all you have left is your name, your reputation, and your relationships. The most valuable currency in this world is integrity. So, find your passion. Stay true to yourself. Deal with honesty. Be compassionate. Be sincere. And never underestimate the value of meaningful relationships. Most importantly, if you ever feel that you’re the smartest person in a room, find yourself another room. Cuz there’s something to learn from everyone.